“That’s policy”: First offers from our friendly customer service representatives

We’ve all heard it a million times at a million retailers: “That’s policy.” It’s policy you must present a receipt, policy you must return it within a month, and policy you must bring a paper copy of the coupon. Policy being policy, the conversation usually ends there. But I’m here to tell you that policy is not necessarily policy. Policy is often an opening gambit—the first offer in a negotiation. And making life negotiable requires recognizing as much.

Let’s bring it to life with a story. My family was recently shopping at one of our favorite purveyors of home furnishings—let’s call it Dock 2—and we weren’t sure which of two pictures would look better in our house. So we decided to buy both, hoping that the answer would become patently clear at home. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it home with both pictures—we didn’t even make it out of the parking lot, as one of them would’ve required a vehicle five times as large to haul it. So we were forced to leave the ginormous picture behind the register, saying we’d come back with a Mack truck later. Having arrived at home, however, we discovered that the smaller picture—the one that actually fit in a passenger vehicle—was just fine in the space. So we no longer needed nor desired to return to Dock 2 to formally return the larger one, especially with two kids under the age of five. And why would they need us to do that, they being in possession of the picture?

“Because that’s policy,” they said when my wife called, at which point she did what most people do: hung up, considering the negotiation utterly over. But was it really over? Was there really no way Dock 2 could return a large picture located approximately two feet from their own register? Stepping back from the situation, it seemed obvious that we could not swallow this particular policy as the end of the negotiation—that, for the sake of two small kids if not our own sanity—we had to treat it as a first offer. But how exactly to do that? How to convince them to reconsider, having just learned their apparently immutable policy?

Reflecting on past posts—especially the ones on “no” and rigid rule enforcers—we decided we needed to understand the concern underlying this particular policy. Why would anyone need to present themselves in vivo to make a return in our virtual world? Presumably to guard against fraud, we surmised—against those bad hombres who might somehow call up Dock 2 pretending to be someone else, thereby racking up a few dollars on their credit cards at the expense of the store. And this, of course, pointed the way toward a solution: call back and make a counteroffer in which we immediately promised to fax or email in the receipt, along with a drivers license if necessary to prove our identities. So that is what we did, and, lo and behold, the immutable policy, previously etched in granite by the immortal leaders of Dock 2, suddenly melted away like better. “Let me talk to my manager,” the associate said, followed shortly by “no problem; just tell me the credit card number needed to make the purchase.” And that was that. Our return was accomplished without dragging any irascible kids to a faraway store, and no receipt or ID were even needed.

So this is just a simple story to illustrate a simple point: “that’s policy,” while seeming like the end of a negotiation, is often just the beginning. It’s the easy answer—the obvious line that any untrained, unmotivated, or just plain unhelpful employee is all-too-eager to give in order to return to their cyberloafing. But it’s not the final offer so much as an invitation to you to step back and think through their interests, then call back, the added benefit being that you might get a more helpful associate the next time. Now I’m not promising that it’ll always work—sometimes it won’t. Sometimes policies are policies, and people just don’t have the will or authority to override them. But I am suggesting that “that’s policy” is not always the be-all and end-all that most of us think it to be; instead, it’s often the opening gambit that most of us would really like it to be.

Have you ever seen a policy magically reversed upon discussion?

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